UCLA Study: The Internet Is Altering Our Brains
Monday, October 19, 2009
Adults with little Internet experience show
changes in their brain activity after just one week online, a new study finds.
The results suggest Internet training can
stimulate neural activation patterns and could
potentially enhance brain function and cognition in older adults.
As the brain ages, a number of structural and
functional changes occur, including atrophy, or
decay, reductions in cell activity and increases
in complex things like deposits of amyloid
plaques and tau tangles, which can impact cognitive function.
Research has shown that mental stimulation
similar to the stimulation that occurs in
individuals who frequently use the Internet may
affect the efficiency of cognitive processing and
alter the way the brain encodes new information.
"We found that for older people with minimal
experience, performing Internet searches for even
a relatively short period of time can change
brain activity patterns and enhance function,"
Dr. Gary Small, study author and professor of
psychiatry at the Semel Institute for
Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a statement.
The UCLA team worked with 24 neurologically
normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78.
Prior to the study, half the participants used
the Internet daily, while the other half had very
little experience. Age, educational level and
gender were similar between the two groups.
The participants performed Web searches while
undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) scans, which recorded the subtle
brain-circuitry changes experienced during this
activity. This type of scan tracks brain activity
by measuring the level of blood flow in the brain
during cognitive tasks. While the study involves
a small number of people and more research on
this topic is needed, small study sizes are typical of fMRI-based research.
After the initial brain scan, subjects went home
and conducted Internet searches for one hour a
day for a total of seven days over a two-week
period. These practice searches involved using
the web to answer questions about various topics
by exploring different websites and reading
information. Participants then received a second
brain scan using the same Internet simulation task, but with different topics.
The first scan of participants with little
Internet experience showed brain activity in the
regions controlling language, reading, memory and
visual abilities. The second brain scan of these
participants, conducted after the home practice
searches, demonstrated activation of these same
regions, but there was also activity in the
middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus –
areas of the brain known to be important in working memory and decision-making.
Thus, after Internet training at home,
participants with minimal online experience
displayed brain activation patterns very similar
to those seen in the group of savvy Internet users.
"The results suggest that searching online may be
a simple form of brain exercise that might be
employed to enhance cognition in older adults,"
Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and UCLA
researcher, said in a statement.
When performing an online search, the ability to
hold important information in working memory and
to take away the important points from competing
graphics and words is essential, Moody noted.
Previous research by the UCLA team found that
searching online resulted in a more than twofold
increase in brain activation in older adults with
prior experience, compared with those with little
Internet experience. The new findings suggest
that it may take only days for those with minimal
experience to match the activity levels of those
with years of experience, said Small.
Additional studies will be needed to address the
impact of the Internet on younger individuals and
help identify aspects of online searching that
generate the greatest levels of brain activation.
The findings were presented Oct. 19 at the
meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago, Illinois.